2006-04-16-Afghan Women With Pluck Tackle Bird FluUnderstanding Avian Influenza
2006-04-16-Afghan Women With Pluck Tackle Bird Flu
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Raising chickens has always been women's work in Afghanistan, and in the past several years this backyard occupation has brought new independence and income to thousands of illiterate war widows who have few other ways to earn a living.
So when avian flu was detected here six months ago, and several cases of its virulent H5N1 strain confirmed by U.N. experts in March, ripples of rumor and panic coursed through the loosely organized groups of widows in greater Kabul who raise some of Afghanistan's estimated 12.1 million chickens and sell their eggs for 2 cents apiece.
For some, the first impulse was to hide, sell or destroy their hand-raised flocks. But in just a few weeks, radio ads, nonprofit groups and a roving corps of Afghan women trained by the United Nations as bird flu "sentinels" have taught the widows how to protect their chickens and themselves from catching the deadly ailment.
"Now we know what to do about this new disease. We wash and boil eggs before eating them, we keep the pens clean and change the soil," said Abida, one of 300 widows in the Kabul district of Charai Qamber who raise poultry at home, with chicks and training provided by CARE International.
Abida, a leathery woman of 50 who lost her husband and six other male relatives to civil conflict in the 1990s, said she had no other means of supporting herself and her children. She does not use a last name. "I am too old to do hard work, and my eyes are too weak to embroider," she said. "I would rather die than kill my chickens."
It has proved to be an enormous challenge to detect, treat and control avian flu in this vast rural country, characterized by poor communication and roads, widespread fear and misinformation about illness, a sluggish bureaucracy and a poultry population living at close quarters with often illiterate people in thousands of small farms and backyards.
After the H5N1 bird flu strain was confirmed, the Afghan government sealed the border with Pakistan to imports of non-frozen poultry. It announced that all poultry markets would be closed and disinfected and said it would soon begin culling in affected areas, a euphemism for killing off flocks when an infected or dead bird is found.
But culling proved more difficult than expected. The government lacked equipment and expertise. Owners were promised between $1 and $5 for each confiscated bird, but the funds were not immediately available. In several districts, officials said, flocks mysteriously vanished just before official teams arrived to dispatch them.
"There were several possible explanations: Either people had hidden them, killed them, eaten them or sold them off," said Serge Verniau, Afghanistan director for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "The key to containing the virus is stopping movement of flocks, but traders may take advantage and offer people a low price to be rid of their birds."
One key difficulty has been determining whether sick birds have the dangerous H5N1 strain, which requires sophisticated laboratory analysis that is not available in Afghanistan. Verniau said his office had worked out an arrangement with Italian peacekeeping forces here to fly samples to Italy for testing.
There are also the problems of how to police informal markets that sell popular songbirds and high-priced fighting cocks, how to prevent the smuggling of untested or sick birds from city to city, and how to monitor migrating birds such as wild ducks that might land in ponds and contaminate them before moving on.
At this point, the FAO official said, avian flu has been contained here, no cases of human infection have been reported and information about the disease has reached much of the country. But there is still no vaccine available for healthy flocks and little international aid, and the government response has been somewhat slow and disorganized.
"The real success has come from the bottom," Verniau said. "We don't need an army of vets going out, because the women themselves have taken action, learned about the disease, and put a chain of reporting in place. They are incredibly motivated."
Paul Barker, Afghanistan director for CARE International, said the group's poultry project had been one of its most effective, helping more than 3,000 indigent women earn money in a way that was socially acceptable, easy to learn and close to home, since they could sell eggs to neighbors and local markets.
"We tried dozens of income-generating ideas for widows, from tailoring to bakeries, and this one has worked the best," Barker said. "Most widows have no access to land or capital, so they can't raise large animals like cows. Poultry has been such a great fit, so bird flu was a potentially devastating blow."
At a meeting of widows in Charai Qamber last week, it was clear that avian flu was a deadly serious topic. Half a dozen women said that without selling eggs, they could not buy laundry soap, salt or school supplies for their children. Halfway through the meeting, another woman arrived, looking nervous and holding up a sick chicken in a plastic bag. It was immediately examined and vaccinated, and she visibly relaxed.
"At first we worried a lot about this disease, but now we have been taught how to avoid it, how to keep the cages and bowls clean," said Majan, 35, a soldier's widow with a gaunt face and piercing eyes. "None of us can afford to lose our chickens."
In the yard outside, a rooster crowed loudly as he lorded over a pen full of hens. The women, engrossed in their discussion, paid no attention.